Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #5400 on: Nov 2nd, 2011, 09:36am »
U.S. Glossed Over Cancer Concerns Associated with Airport X-Ray Scanners
Experts say the dose from the backscatter is negligible when compared with naturally occurring background radiation, but a linear model shows even such trivial amounts increase the number of cancer cases
By Michael Grabell and ProPublica Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Look for a PBS NewsHour story on X-ray body scanners, reported in conjunction with ProPublica, to air later this month.
On Sept. 23, 1998, a panel of radiation safety experts gathered at a Hilton hotel in Maryland to evaluate a new device that could detect hidden weapons and contraband. The machine, known as the Secure 1000, beamed X-rays at people to see underneath their clothing.
One after another, the experts convened by the Food and Drug Administration raised questions about the machine because it violated a longstanding principle in radiation safety — that humans shouldn’t be X-rayed unless there is a medical benefit.
“I think this is really a slippery slope,” said Jill Lipoti, who was the director of New Jersey’s radiation protection program. The device was already deployed in prisons; what was next, she and others asked — courthouses, schools, airports? “I am concerned … with expanding this type of product for the traveling public,” said another panelist, Stanley Savic, the vice president for safety at a large electronics company. “I think that would take this thing to an entirely different level of public health risk.”
The machine’s inventor, Steven W. Smith, assured the panelists that it was highly unlikely that the device would see widespread use in the near future. At the time, only 20 machines were in operation in the entire country.
“The places I think you are not going to see these in the next five years is lower-security facilities, particularly power plants, embassies, courthouses, airports and governments,” Smith said. “I would be extremely surprised in the next five to 10 years if the Secure 1000 is sold to any of these.”
Today, the United States has begun marching millions of airline passengers through the X-ray body scanners, parting ways with countries in Europe and elsewhere that have concluded that such widespread use of even low-level radiation poses an unacceptable health risk. The government is rolling out the X-ray scanners despite having a safer alternative that the Transportation Security Administration says is also highly effective.
A ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation of how this decision was made shows that in post-9/11 America, security issues can trump even long-established medical conventions. The final call to deploy the X-ray machines was made not by the FDA, which regulates drugs and medical devices, but by the TSA, an agency whose primary mission is to prevent terrorist attacks.
Research suggests that anywhere from six to 100 U.S. airline passengers each year could get cancer from the machines. Still, the TSA has repeatedly defined the scanners as “safe,” glossing over the accepted scientific view that even low doses of ionizing radiation — the kind beamed directly at the body by the X-ray scanners — increase the risk of cancer.
“Even though it’s a very small risk, when you expose that number of people, there’s a potential for some of them to get cancer,” said Kathleen Kaufman, the former radiation management director in Los Angeles County, who brought the prison X-rays to the FDA panel’s attention.
About 250 X-ray scanners are currently in U.S. airports, along with 264 body scanners that use a different technology, a form of low-energy radio waves known as millimeter waves.
Robin Kane, the TSA’s assistant administrator for security technology, said that no one would get cancer because the amount of radiation the X-ray scanners emit is minute. Having both technologies is important to create competition, he added.
“It’s a really, really small amount relative to the security benefit you’re going to get,” Kane said. “Keeping multiple technologies in play is very worthwhile for the U.S. in getting that cost-effective solution — and being able to increase the capabilities of technology because you keep everyone trying to get the better mousetrap.”
Determined to fill a critical hole in its ability to detect explosives, the TSA plans to have one or the other operating at nearly every security lane in America by 2014. The TSA has designated the scanners for “primary” screening: Officers will direct every passenger, including children, to go through either a metal detector or a body scanner, and the passenger’s only alternative will be to request a physical pat-down.
How did the United States swing from considering such X-rays taboo to deeming them safe enough to scan millions of people a year?
A new wave of terrorist attacks using explosives concealed on the body, coupled with the scanners’ low dose of radiation, certainly convinced many radiation experts that the risk was justified.
But other factors helped the machines gain acceptance.
Because of a regulatory Catch-22, the airport X-ray scanners have escaped the oversight required for X-ray machines used in doctors’ offices and hospitals. The reason is that the scanners do not have a medical purpose, so the FDA cannot subject them to the rigorous evaluation it applies to medical devices.
Still, the FDA has limited authority to oversee some non-medical products and can set mandatory safety regulations. But the agency let the scanners fall under voluntary standards set by a nonprofit group heavily influenced by industry.
As for the TSA, it skipped a public comment period required before deploying the scanners. Then, in defending them, it relied on a small body of unpublished research to insist the machines were safe, and ignored contrary opinions from U.S. and European authorities that recommended precautions, especially for pregnant women. Finally, the manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, unleashed an intense and sophisticated lobbying campaign, ultimately winning large contracts.
Both the FDA and TSA say due diligence has been done to assure the scanners’ safety. Rapiscan says it won the contract because its technology is superior at detecting threats. While the TSA says X-ray and millimeter-wave scanners are both effective, Germany decided earlier this year not to roll out millimeter-wave machines after finding they produced too many false positives.
Most of the news coverage on body scanners has focused on privacy, because the machines can produce images showing breasts and buttocks. But the TSA has since installed software to make the images less graphic. While some accounts have raised the specter of radiation, this is the first report to trace the history of the scanners and document the gaps in regulation that allowed them to avoid rigorous safety evaluation.
Little research on cancer risk of body scanners Humans are constantly exposed to ionizing radiation, a form of energy that has been shown to strip electrons from atoms, damage DNA and mutate genes, potentially leading to cancer. Most radiation comes from radon, a gas produced from naturally decaying elements in the ground. Another major source is cosmic radiation from outer space. Many common items, such as smoke detectors, contain tiny amounts of radioactive material, as do exit signs in schools and office buildings.
As a result, the cancer risk from any one source of radiation is often small. Outside of nuclear accidents, such as that at Japan's Fukushima plant, and medical errors, the health risk comes from cumulative exposure.
In Rapiscan’s Secure 1000 scanner, which uses ionizing radiation, a passenger stands between two large blue boxes and is scanned with a pencil X-ray beam that rapidly moves left to right and up and down the body. In the other machine, ProVision, made by defense contractor L-3 Communications, a passenger enters a chamber that looks like a round phone booth and is scanned with millimeter waves, a form of low-energy radio waves, which have not been shown to strip electrons from atoms or cause cancer.
Only a decade ago, many states prohibited X-raying a person for anything other than a medical exam. Even after 9/11, such non-medical X-raying remains taboo in most of the industrialized world. In July, the European Parliament passed a resolution that security “scanners using ionizing radiation should be prohibited” because of health risks. Although the United Kingdom uses the X-ray machine for limited purposes, such as when passengers trigger the metal detector, most developed countries have decided to forgo body scanners altogether or use only the millimeter-wave machines.
While the research on medical X-rays could fill many bookcases, the studies that have been done on the airport X-ray scanners, known as backscatters, fill a file no more than a few inches thick. None of the main studies cited by the TSA has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, the gold standard for scientific research.
Those tests show that the Secure 1000 delivers an extremely low dose of radiation, less than 10 microrems. The dose is roughly one-thousandth of a chest X-ray and equivalent to the cosmic radiation received in a few minutes of flying at typical cruising altitude. The TSA has used those measurements to say the machines are “safe.”
Most of what researchers know about the long-term health effects of low levels of radiation comes from studies of atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By charting exposure levels and cancer cases, researchers established a linear link that shows the higher the exposure, the greater risk of cancer.
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #5405 on: Nov 2nd, 2011, 2:30pm »
Defense official to industry: Deliver quality or ‘make reduced or no profits’
By John T. Bennett 11/01/11 08:55 PM ET
A key Pentagon official stressed the importance of a “robust” U.S. defense sector, but he also delivered some tough love to private firms.
As their annual budgets shrink, Pentagon officials must “adapt” their decisionmaking to ensure its manufacturing sector remains strong, and they even plan to “tailor” investments to protect some “niche firms,” Brett Lambert, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for manufacturing and industrial base policy, told a House Armed Services subcommittee.
But Lambert also warned that some tactics used by defense firms to increase their own margins “must end,” and sternly told firms the Pentagon will not keep dying industries alive or reward bad business models.
“In the high-budget environments of the past, many companies have grown to expect high margins independent of the quality of their performance,” Lambert said. “As budgets shrink, this practice must end.”
Lambert, who for several years has been at the forefront of the Pentagon’s efforts to bolster and better understand the industrial base, also had tough words for firms that fail to perform.
“Individual companies that do not provide the government with quality products that meet the department’s requirements on time and at reasonable cost should expect to make reduced or no profits,” he said.
His comments come as annual defense budgets, which almost doubled in the decade after 9/11, are being reduced. Many in the defense sector and on Capitol Hill see this funding shrinkage as a potentially fatal blow to an industrial base that already was eroding due to consolidations, an aging workforce and few weapon programs in the pipeline to attract new skilled workers.
As the Pentagon last year was crafting new buying guidelines, some industry officials privately speculated that DOD officials were targeting companies’ profits.
DOD officials moved quickly to allay such fears, and Lambert struck a similar tone Tuesday.
“The Department of Defense ... appreciates that businesses must be motivated by the opportunity to make a reasonable profit,” he told the Armed Services special subcommittee on Defense Business Challenges. “Indeed, leveraging the inherent motivations to allow companies that perform well to increase profit levels above a mean is in the department’s interest.”
But while Pentagon officials will make some decisions to maintain the world’s strongest military manufacturing sector, they expect that some firms will experience turbulence, or fold.
“Our commitment to working with industry, however, does not mean the Department of Defense should underwrite sunset industries or prop up poor business models,” Lambert said.
The Obama administration last year crafted new guidelines for the services and industry, spelling out how it will buy everything from combat hardware to support services. That was part of a broader effort aimed at gaining a better understanding of America’s defense sector.
Lambert told the subcommittee that the Pentagon has made “an aggressive effort to map and assess the industrial base sector by sector, tier by tier.”
“Just as doctors do not seek to understand the functioning of every individual neuron in the central nervous system, the department does not seek to know the exact details and reasoning behind every supplier relationship,” Lambert said. “But we do need to better understand the industrial base’s nervous system, circulatory system and bone structure.”
That detailed work will be used at various levels of the Defense Department to make budget and program decisions.
Now, Darpa-funded researchers are convinced they’ve found a way to make prosthetics truly life-like: laser beams.
A team led by experts at Southern Methodist University is making swift progress towards prosthetic devices that rely on fiber-optics, and would offer a wearer the kind of seamless movement and sensation experienced with a flesh-and-blood limb.
“Already, we’re tantalizingly close,” Dr. Marc Christensen, the program’s leader, tells Danger Room. “We haven’t seen anything that’s been a deal-breaker yet.”
It all started in 2005, when researchers at Vanderbilt realized they could trigger a nerve using infrared light. The finding catalyzed a handful of research projects investigating the prospect of laser-powered prostheses, and Darpa last year doled out $5.6 million for the creation of the Neurophotonics Research Center, led by SMU, for the development of prosthetic devices powered by infrared lasers.
A fiber-optic prosthetic for a human patient would likely be a cuff — loaded with optical cables — affixed at one end to a prosthetic, and attached at the other to the body’s severed nerves. Those are a decade off, but already, researchers say they’ve nearly climbed the project’s biggest hurdle: Developing sensors with enough sensitivity to detect — and trigger — the infinitesimally small perturbations of a single activated nerve.
That’s thanks to Professor Volkan Otugen, director of SMU’s Micro-Sensor Laboratory. He developed entirely new micro-sensors for the project. The soft spheres are a few hundred microns in diameter — small enough to fit hundreds onto a single optical fiber — and the consistency of Jell-O. That unique composition would make the sensors compatible with the body’s tissues, unlike metal implants that can cut into delicate tissue, wear down within years, and risk being rejected by the body. And one optical fiber can transmit a ton of signals at a single time and even stimulate a single neuron, making a bundle of them able to transmit exponentially more signals, much faster, with way more specificity, than systems relying on electrodes.
Let’s say you were trying to grab a coffee cup. Even a bleeding-edge, brain-based prosthetic would only offer a few degrees of movement, and because electrical signals are relatively slow, you couldn’t move as quickly as someone with a real arm. “It would be akin to bench-pressing 250 pounds to lift a mug,” Christensen says.
With a fiber-optics prosthetic, touching the cup would catalyze optical fibers to pulse a specific message out of infrared light through the hundreds of micro-sensors, which would stimulate sensory nerves that could then — as they do with a flesh-and-blood arm — transmit the specific, nuanced sensory message to the brain. The brain would then send feedback to the arm’s motor nerves, which would trigger specific movements in those trusty micro-sensors. Those movements change the pattern of infrared light circulating in and out of the sensors, which triggers highly specific muscle movement.
“It’s the same way the internet put thousands of phone calls on one wire,” Christensen says of the method, which he expects to test in mammals next year. “Right now a prosthetic can pick up or transmit maybe two signals. We think we can turn that number into thousands.”
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #5413 on: Nov 3rd, 2011, 12:01pm »
Greek leader signals he may ditch referendum plan
By Dina Kyriakidou and Lefteris Papadimas ATHENS | Thu Nov 3, 2011 12:57pm EDT
ATHENS (Reuters) - Prime Minister George Papandreou said on Thursday he would scrap a referendum on Greece's bailout lifeline if the conservative opposition agreed to back the package in parliament.
Events in Athens gathered speed a day after Papandreou held a bruising meeting in France with German and French leaders, who told him Athens would not receive a cent more in aid until it voted to meet its commitments under the bailout deal.
"I will be glad even if we don't go to a referendum, which was never a purpose in itself. I'm glad that all this discussion has at least brought a lot of people back to their senses," he said in the text of a speech to his cabinet released to media.
"If the opposition comes to the table to back the bailout, a referendum is not needed.
Both the conservative opposition and some lawmakers within Papandreou's socialist party PASOK demanded some kind of unity government which would push through parliament the 130 billion euro rescue, Greece's last financial lifeline.
Under intense pressure at home and also from the leaders of Germany and France, Papandreou softened his insistence that the Greek people should decide in a referendum on whether to accept the bailout, which also demands yet more austerity.
Conservative leader Antonis Samaras led calls for a new government. "I'm asking for the formation of a temporary, transitional government with an exclusive mandate to immediately hold elections. And the ratification of the bailout deal from the current parliament," he said in a statement.
Papandreou responded by welcoming the decision by Samaras to drop his previous opposition to the bailout package, which euro zone leaders agreed only last week as they tried to prevent the bloc's debt crisis running out of control.
Papandreou reiterated that Greece's euro zone membership was not in question and that heading to elections immediately would entail a big risk of the country going bankrupt.
Greeks have fiercely opposed the spending cuts, tax rises and job losses which have been the price of financial aid from the IMF and European Union to tackle its huge debt and budget deficit. This has led to a wave of strikes and outbreaks of violence on the streets of Athens.
A spokesman for the New Democracy party said a transitional government should not be composed of party politicians. He declined to elaborate.
However, the idea appeared to be gaining ground within Papandreou's own socialist party PASOK.
A small group of senior PASOK lawmakers are preparing a proposal for a coalition government headed by former European Central Bank Vice President Lucas Papademos, a Greek, party sources told Reuters.
Government officials said Papandreou, who also called a vote of confidence in his government for Friday, was not resigning and would await the result of the talks with New Democracy.
"There is no resignation by the prime minister. He will speak, as scheduled, in parliament later on Thursday," one official told Reuters.
Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos broke ranks with Papandreou, coming out against holding the referendum after the meeting with the German and French leaders.
"REFERENDUM IS DEAD"
Chaos over Greece's role in the euro zone swept financial markets with early losses in stocks and the euro turning to gains on hopes Athens might ditch its referendum plans.
The Greek stock exchange rose 5 percent on speculation the referendum would be abandoned, with the index of bank shares soaring 15 percent. World stocks as measured by MSCI gained 0.9 percent after earlier being sharply lower.
In Europe, the FTSEurofirst 300 lost 1 percent initially but later stood close to 1 percent higher. Earlier, Japan's Nikkei closed down 2.2 percent.
"The referendum is dead," Greek ruling party lawmaker Nikos Salayannis said on state radio.
One PASOK lawmaker said she would not support the government in the parliamentary vote of confidence on Friday, cutting its majority for that vote to just one.
PASOK has 152 deputies in the 300-member parliament.
Lawmaker Eva Kaili announced she would stay in the party but refused to support the government in the confidence vote expected late on Friday, meaning Papandreou could count at most on the support of 151 deputies.
Venizelos, one of the most powerful men in the PASOK government, originally supported Papandreou's plan. His change of mind came after he and Papandreou attended the emergency summit in Cannes on Wednesday with Merkel and Sarkozy.
A finance ministry source told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Venizelos believed the vote on the bailout, which was agreed by euro zone leaders only last week, should not be held while immediate funding to keep Greece afloat still had to be secured.
A VERY DIFFICULT MEETING
"Under these conditions a referendum is exactly what the country does not need. He would not have objections if all our pending issues such as the loan installment and the completion of the bailout plan had been sorted out," the source said after the meeting with Merkel and Sarkozy.
"It was a very difficult meeting," the source added.
Papandreou's bombshell announcement on Monday of the referendum pitched Greece into a political as well as an economic crisis.
About 10 PASOK lawmakers have publicly called for a coalition government to approve the EU bailout deal and proceed to new elections. About 15, including five ministers and deputy ministers, have rejected the referendum idea.
PASOK lawmaker Costas Gitonas said the referendum should not take place. "No, by no means," he told Mega TV. "It's a madhouse."
The specter of a precipitous Greek default and euro exit hung over a meeting of G20 leaders beginning in Cannes on Thursday.
The French Riviera summit had been meant to focus on reforms of the global monetary system and steps to curb speculative capital flows, but the shock waves from Greece have upended the global talks.
(Additional reporting by Reuters Athens bureau; Writing by David Stamp)
Re: Stuff & Nonsense
« Reply #5414 on: Nov 3rd, 2011, 12:06pm »
Salaries and Benefits of US Congress Members
By Robert Longley, About.com Guide
U.S. Congress salaries and benefits have been the source of taxpayer unhappiness and myths over the years. Here are some facts for your consideration.
The current salary (2011) for rank-and-file members of the House and Senate is $174,000 per year.
•Members are free to turn down pay increase and some choose to do so.
•In a complex system of calculations, administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management2, congressional pay rates also affect the salaries for federal judges and other senior government executives.
•During the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin considered proposing that elected government officials not be paid for their service. Other Founding Fathers, however, decided otherwise.
•From 1789 to 1855, members of Congress received only a per diem (daily payment) of $6.00 while in session, except for a period from December 1815 to March 1817, when they received $1,500 a year. Members began receiving an annual salary in 1855, when they were paid $3,000 per year. Congress: Leadership Members' Salary (2011) Leaders of the House and Senate are paid a higher salary than rank-and-file members.
Senate Leadership Majority Party Leader - $193,400 Minority Party Leader - $193,400
House Leadership Speaker of the House3 - $223,500 Majority Leader - $193,400 Minority Leader - $193,400
A cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) increase takes effect annually unless Congress votes to not accept it.
Benefits Paid to Members of Congress
You may have read that Members of Congress do not pay into Social Security. Well, that's a myth.
Prior to 1984, neither Members of Congress nor any other federal civil service employee paid Social Security taxes. Of course, they were also not eligible to receive Social Security benefits. Members of Congress and other federal employees were instead covered by a separate pension plan called the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). The 1983 amendments to the Social Security Act required federal employees first hired after 1983 to participate in Social Security. These amendments also required all Members of Congress to participate in Social Security as of January 1, 1984, regardless of when they first entered Congress. Because the CSRS was not designed to coordinate with Social Security, Congress directed the development of a new retirement plan for federal workers. The result was the Federal Employees' Retirement System Act of 1986.
Members of Congress receive retirement and health benefits under the same plans available to other federal employees. They become vested after five years of full participation.
Members elected since 1984 are covered by the Federal Employees' Retirement System6 (FERS). Those elected prior to 1984 were covered by the Civil Service Retirement System7 (CSRS). In 1984 all members were given the option of remaining with CSRS or switching to FERS.
As it is for all other federal employees, congressional retirement is funded through taxes and the participants' contributions. Members of Congress under FERS contribute 1.3 percent of their salary into the FERS retirement plan and pay 6.2 percent of their salary in Social Security taxes.
Members of Congress are not eligible for a pension until they reach the age of 50, but only if they've completed 20 years of service. Members are eligible at any age after completing 25 years of service or after they reach the age of 62. Please also note that Members of Congress have to serve at least 5 years to even receive a pension.
The amount of a congressperson's pension depends on the years of service and the average of the highest 3 years of his or her salary. By law, the starting amount of a Member's retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary.
According to the Congressional Research Service, 413 retired Members of Congress were receiving federal pensions based fully or in part on their congressional service as of Oct. 1, 2006. Of this number, 290 had retired under CSRS and were receiving an average annual pension of $60,972. A total of 123 Members had retired with service under both CSRS and FERS or with service under FERS only. Their average annual pension was $35,952 in 2006.